Every year millions of children are told that if they are bad Santa will leave a lump of coal in their stockings instead of a Christmas present. If new EPA regulations threatening coal-based power plants go into effect, many parents may end up wishing their children had been a little naughty.

That’s because on January 1st the Environmental Protection Agency’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule is scheduled to go into effect. Officially, the rule is supposed to account for the fact that emissions from one state can drift downwind into other states, imperiling the latters’ ability to meet EPA air quality standards. That sounds sensible, but the reality is that EPA’s new rules are based not on what is happening today, but on what its computer models predict may happen in the future.

Instead, the Cross-State Rule is part of a concerted effort to destroy America’s coal industry. During the 2008 campaign, then-candidate Obama told the San Francisco Chronicle that under his Cap-and-trade proposal, “if somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can; it’s just that it will bankrupt them because they’re going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted.” Once it became clear that Cap-and-trade could not pass Congress, Obama shifted ground, telling reporters after the November 2010 elections that “Cap-and-trade was just one way of skinning the cat; it was not the only way.”

The Cross-State Rule is one of four new EPA regulations targeting coal-powered generation. Together, the rules will lead to the closing of between 32 and 58 coal-fired power plants in a dozen states, according to a recent analysis by the Associated Press. This is horrible news for the communities that are often built around these plants, but it also has worrying implications for the public at large. Coal provides half of America’s baseload electrical generation, and as much as 80% in some areas. The sudden shuttering of dozens of coal plants could take as much as 8% of the country’s electrical generation offline, imperiling basic reliability. Both NERC (the federal North American Electric Reliability Corporation) and ERCOT (the Electric Reliability Council of Texas) have warned that the anti-coal rules could force rolling blackouts. EPA, however, has suggested that any problems with electrical reliability can be dealt with once they arise, at which point it may be too late.

The Texas power company Luminant filed suit in September challenging the validity of the Cross-State Rule and seeking a stay (similar challenges have also been filed by several state governments). The stay motion is currently pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and a ruling is expected imminently.

– Josiah Neeley